Spirit Photography captures love, loss, and longing

It is believed that the process of light bouncing off the subject and then back to the camera suggests that the photographs are a reflection and a record of the thing shown. Scholars from fields ranging from anthropology and art history have studied the connection between photos and ghosts.

Spirit photography is a portrait that visually reunites the bereaved and their loved ones. I attribute this phenomenon to a Boston woman’s creative innovation in 1861.

The motives and techniques of spirit photographers may interest modern readers, but what is more fascinating is the effect the photographs had on the suffering people who commissioned them. The Victorian fascination with spirit photography was a story of love, longing, and loss.

Spirit of the Age

Spirit photograph taken between 1862-1875. (The Paul J. Getty Museum)

The context for spiritualism was the inspiration behind spirit photography. Spiritualists believe that the soul persists after death and in the possibility of continued communication and bonds between the dead.

When two young women from Hydesville in New York claimed to be able to hear the knocking of a dead peddler in their house in 1848, ideas of spiritualism were already in the air.

Some 19th-century spiritualists believed that an invisible presence inspired their work. In the early days of photography, some spirit photographers attributed their work to an outside force or presence, which temporarily overcame them. The “extras” in spirit photos — sometimes a face or shape, other times an object — were meant to be interpreted as and not being made by humans.

When paired with the longings of the suffering spirit, photos could become enchanting, personal memories.

Sustained bonds

Spirit photo is believed to have been taken in the 1870s. (Wikimedia Commons)

Spirit photographs, unlike postmortem photos — the 19th-century practice of photographing a deceased person as if they were asleep — did not freeze the loved one into a particular moment following death. They suggested that there was a moment after death and the possibility of future moments being shared.

Spirit photography encouraged and then mediated the resurgence in the animated likeness of the deceased. Spirit photography was developed at a time when many technologies were used to communicate with the dead.

In spirit photography, however, the loved ones rarely appeared in full transparency. Spirit photographers use semi-translucency to show spirits “still with us” and animated. They also indicate that they are only a half away. Spirit photographs show the presence of the deceased loved one in the same way that the bereaved feel it.

The first photos to show ghostly apparitions did not exist until the spirit photographs. These semi-translucent extras are the first time they have been marketed to establish a connection with the dead.

Spirit photographs are a bereavement service that is meant to convey the pain of separation through the lens and not by trickery.

Spirits of the World

(Ninara/Flickr), a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/”>CC BY/a>. Photo taken at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm. (Ninara/Flickr), CC BY

The belief in miraculous forms and faces in photography may seem novel. But a much older tradition of finding meaning in and comfort from the apparition of face can be found within Christian traditions of veneration of relics, such as the Veil of Veronica, which, according to Catholic popular beliefs and legend, bears the likeness of Christ’s face imprinted before his crucifixion.

Even during the 19th century, the recognition of loved ones in spirit photos was sometimes equated to pareidolia – the powerful human tendency to perceive patterns, faces, or objects, such as relics and random objects.

In 1863, physician and poet O.W. Holmes wrote in Atlantic Monthly that the spirit photographs were of no consequence to the bereaved.

It is enough that the mother’s eyes are filled with tears to see a drapery print like an infant dress and a round thing, like a fog-filled dumpling, which will serve as a face. She accepts the ghost portrait, believing it a revelation of the shadow world.

Even if the photographer’s techniques were revealed, the bereaved maintained that their spirit photo was genuine. SufferingThe ambiguity in the images did not deter bereaved people. This leap of faith was what sparked the creativity needed to turn these photographs from being unbelievable into powerful and deeply personal artifacts.

In 1962, a woman who had ordered a photo of her husband shared this with the spirit photographer. “It’s recognized by everyone who has seen it and who knew him when he was on Earth. I’m myself convinced that his spirit is present, even though invisible to mortals.”

Haunting refrains

Double exposure or combination printing was often used to produce spirit photographs. It would have been possible to create pictures in which the deceased was shown at full opacity with the bereaved – seamlessly reunited. The tendency to show the absent person at a lower opacity persists, even in composite portraits.

Semi-translucence is used to depict the remembered person. This is done deliberately, as it is meant to convey a sense of presence, but only for those who are sensitive.

Spirit photographs are cherished for their messages of love sent from beyond the grave. But they also send love to those who have passed.

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